Circumcision, no fine: on why mandating religious behavior backfires


I’m circumcised. My two sons are circumcised. Pretty much every other male I know is, too (not that I check). But a ruling last week by the Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals in Jerusalem that essentially mandates circumcision by law, with a severe financial penalty for parents who choose not to participate in this most ancient of Jewish rituals, goes too far.


Here’s what happened: a baby boy is born but has medical problems that prevent him from having a brit milah (circumcision) eight days after being born in accordance with Jewish Law. A year passes and the parents wind up divorcing. The mother, meanwhile, decides that she objects to circumcision on ethical grounds. The father sues the mother, demanding that the boy, now healthy, get that brit, and the rabbinical court slaps a NIS 500 (about $140) fine on the mother for every day the circumcision doesn’t take place.


The mother goes on TV and, as reported in The Jerusalem Post, tells Channel 2 news that “I don’t have the right to cut his genitals and wound him and the rabbinical court does not have the right to force me to.” She says she won’t pay the fine (and in any case doesn’t have the means to do so) and will appeal to the Israeli High Court of Justice.


(Photo: Reuters)


As is so often the case, the story is not quite as straightforward as it seems: the rabbinical court judges, in their verdict, write that they believe the mother somehow sees her actions as a way to reconcile with her ex-husband. And, adds a report in Haaretz, the mother apparently also said the baby’s father agreed originally with the no-brit decision but when the couple began to discuss their divorce in court, he unexpectedly decided to insist on the circumcision.


The rabbinical court judges are aware of the larger implications of the case, too, writing that “if an opening is made here and the mother is given the opportunity to prevent the circumcision or to use her objection as a way to obtain things in the divorce settlement, we will likely find ourselves facing an outbreak of such cases, and then another dimension will be added to the [already] frightening divorce process.”


Back story aside, the rabbinical court decision has ramifications – intended or not – that will probably do exactly the opposite of what the judges had in mind. While the vast majority of Israelis opt for a traditional brit milah (there are alternative non-surgical ceremonies like the brit shalom but they haven’t quite made the cut in popularity), mandating the ritual – or any religious ritual for that matter – makes no sense, both from a legal point of view and from a kiruv perspective – that is, for those who aim to increase observance of Jewish tradition.


It’s psychology 101: when you force people to do something, a substantial number of them are going to run the other way. Just look at the number of young Israelis who fly off to Cyprus to get married in order to avoid the Rabbinate. It’s not just couples who are unable to marry in Israel according to Jewish Law; many simply don’t want to get too close to an organization that has gained a media-fired reputation (warranted or not) for putting up obstacles when it should be welcoming its customer base.


So what does the government do about that? Does it make the marriage process more user friendly? Not exactly. As of last month, it is now illegal to get married in Israel and not register the marriage with the Rabbinate.


To be fair, the original aim of the new legislation was positive: in order to introduce competition and more transparency, couples are now allowed to register at any rabbinical authority regardless of geography, so local councils can fight it out in the marketplace of gracious service. However, an under-the-radar rider to the bill has turned several friends of mine, who had a ceremony according to halacha (Jewish Law) in Israel but declined to register what they’d done with the Rabbinate, into lawbreakers subject to up to two years imprisonment.


(The irony is that this particular ruling was davka intended to crack down on private wedding ceremonies in the haredi sector that could lead to potential polygamy.)


The anything but reductionist role of the Rabbinate goes on. In Jerusalem, it is now embroiled in a battle over kosher certification. Several well-known restaurants have declared they are kosher but are no longer willing to pay for an official kashrut certificate. Does the Rabbinate try to negotiate a win-win compromise with the restaurants to keep them kosher rather than push them into a world of treife? Nope. Taking a page from the circumcision conundrum, it began issuing fines, claiming that the Rabbinate has a “copyright” of sorts over the term “kosher.” (I’ve written about this previously here.)


Modern Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz took up the restaurants’ cause and has been working to create an alternative kashrut licensing authority. Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim party (a constant antagonist to the haredi parties on the city council) put Leibowitz on its ticket and probably garnered a few extra votes that way. Can you spell “backfire?”


Listen, I’m not against anyone who wants to eat only in eateries with Rabbinate certification, or who wants to register their marriage with the official authorities, or who wants to give their son a traditional circumcision. I think there are many very affirmative reasons for all of these actions and I hope that my grandchildren will have their appointed hour with the mohel too. My point is that these should be a matter of personal choice, not legally imposed.


Indeed, if we want Judaism to be a meaningful part of people’s lives, we must accentuate the reasons to do mitzvot that add relevance to one’s life, not to threaten people with financial penalties and jail terms. Judaism is full of such arguments that don’t involve transforming the yoke of Heaven into a court brief. For example, Shabbat has immense value as a national day of “turning off,” for everyone, religious and secular alike. It creates an entirely different quality of time than the previous six days; one that holds significant potential to improve personal relationships and provide the desperately needed space to recharge one’s batteries, spiritual or otherwise.


The particulars of this circumcision debate, taking place in the midst of a personal divorce and now the politics of the media, are murky to be sure. And many would say even raising the question about whether brit milah could be considered “optional” plays into the hands of the anti-circumcision chorus of Europe. Let me repeat: I am not in any way saying circumcision should be forbidden! But the conclusion of the High Court, if and when the case is appealed there, should be clear: for the good of the Jewish people, we must not mandate religious behavior.